Maria Shell – Anchorage, Alaska, USA
Since 2011, I have been working in a series called Colors Grids. This has been a very satisfying explo-ration of patchwork as art. I love to layer pattern on top of pattern. Essentially, I am piecing, with my sewing machine, my own prints. These quilts are modern day tapestries of color, pattern, repetition, and stitch.
According to Barbara Brackman’s Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns, my Color Grid quilts are inspired by and related to the following quilt blocks–The Red Cross Quilt, Stone Mason’s Puzzle, City Streets, Squares and Square, and my favorite, Crossed Square.
Limiting the structure of my work to the traditional quilt block has allowed me to go deep into color and print. How do I get color to vibrate? How do I get a self made print to read against another self made print? How can I stitch these elements together so that the viewer sees not only hundreds of scraps of fabric but also the SUM–the whole as greater than its parts? What would happen if a traditional bed quilt ate a healthy dose of psychedelic mushrooms? Those are the questions I am trying to answer.
Vintage and contemporary commercial solid and print cotton fabrics, as well as hand dyed cotton textiles I have created are the materials I use in my work. These textiles are improvisationally and ruler cut and then stitched into a two dimensional surface. Once I create this pieced canvas, I spend hours on my long arm quilting machine stitching the top to cotton or wool batting and a fabric backing. The final step is to bind or face each individual piece.Beyond my love of the process of making a quilt—the hours of stitching, designing, ironing, and cutting—I am also a fierce advocate of the quilt as a legitimate art form. Many art quilters shy away from the word quilt and work actively to bury any references to the tradition in their work. They use the materials and techniques of the quilt while publicly denying its ancestry, preferring instead to align themselves with mediums more easily recognized as fine art—painting and photography, in particular.
For years I have stood alone on this issue. My friends would say, don’t call yourself a quilter—there is so much baggage there! And I would say that is the point, but it is not baggage—it is a tradition and a history, and I stand on the backs of those who went before me with the hopes of moving this craft into new territory that celebrates the past while simultaneously embracing the future.
What makes me happiest is to create the most wacky colorful beautiful quilted compositions I can and then share them with the world.
(Click images to enlarge)
SAQA: When did you begin making art with fabric? Do you work in other media as well?
SHELL: I started stitching when I was four years old. My mother let me use old clothing, and I made all kinds of things in the way that children do—stuffed animals and dolls, handbags, and pillows. I did not have sewing patterns or fancy fabric. So, I went at creating with what I had. My mother promised me a sewing machine when I turned ten, and I held her to it.
I think of myself as a maker whose primary medium is cloth and stitch. There is something about working with these materials that makes me feel good about myself and the world.I am obsessed with daily art projects. Last year for Project Every Day, I wore only clothing I had made for an entire year. Every day my youngest son would take my photo in the same place—the dirt road we live on. I would then post that image on Instagram. Right now, I am very intrigued by paper collage. I started with cough drop wrappers. Every day, I add a new material (usually paper) into that day’s composition. As I run out of a particular material it disappears from the compositions. I have been posting a new piece every day on Instagram. I am not particularly good with mixed media, but I am loving the journey.
SAQA: What inspires you?
SHELL: I am constantly inspired by pattern, repetition, color, and the traditional quilt block
SAQA: Have any artists or art movements influenced your work?
SHELL: I think of my work as hard edge painting made with stitch and fabric. The Hard-edge painting style is related to Geometric Abstraction, Op Art, Post-painterly Abstraction, and Color Field painting. Some of my favorite artists are Frank Stella, Josef Albers, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, and Bridget Riley.
SAQA: What techniques and materials do you use?
SHELL: I am about as old school as you can get. I always say we piecers do three things—we cut, we stitch, and we press. I use a ruler, and I don’t use ruler. I use vintage and contemporary cotton textiles and hand dyed fabrics. I stitch on a Bernina 640, and I quilt on a Gammill Classic Plus.
SAQA: Where do you create?
SHELL: I have two studios. The main studio is in our home in Anchorage. My husband has built fabric and quilt storage all around the room—it is a highly functional space. I have two sewing centers—one is an old desk where my Bernina lives, the other is a long arm quilting machine. On the front of the studio is an L-shaped cutting station with a view of our front yard.
My second studio is very primitive. It is the back half of an old garage which is attached to our dry cabin in McCarthy, Alaska. There are holes in the walls where the summer breezes comes through, and it is totally powered by the sun. It also has a huge design wall.
SAQA: How do you reconcile the art-making and business sides of your creative life?SHELL: I spend at least half of my time: teaching; writing blogs, lectures, and grants; using social media, and connecting with people via phone and email. I like to get that work done first and then I can go into the studio. If I start with the studio, I have a very hard time quitting and moving into office, but I never have a problem quitting the office work and moving into the studio!
SAQA: Have you published in art-related media?
SHELL: C&T is publishing my first book this year. It is called Improv Patchwork: Dynamic Quilts Made with Line & Shape. You can preorder the book here.
I did a short interview for the Quilt Show at the 2016 International Quilt Festival and I am taping a longer episode in August of this year.
I am also part of the SAQA video Stitching Together a Global Community.
SAQA: What are you working on now? What’s next?
SHELL: I just received a fellowship from the Rasmuson Foundation to create 12 new large pieces based on the curved quilt block called Flowering Snowball. I have done a lot of linear work over the last five years, and I am very much looking forward to this new challenge.
I have joined a new small art group called Cloth in Common, and I will be producing new work based on challenges suggested by the members.
Project Every Day—the project where I wore only clothing I have made for an entire year—is moving into the next phase. I am hoping to make a stop action flip book style movie and a series of 12 quilts composed of the remains from the clothing.
I will also be having a solo show at Hello Stitch in Berkeley, California in November & December of 2017.